Draft analysis: Should Bears pass on top CBs Denzel Ward or Josh Jackson?

Part 8 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

Making three interceptions in a stunning 55-14 win against then-No. 5 Ohio State would put any cornerback on the NFL’s radar. But Iowa’s Josh Jackson isn’t just any cornerback.

A week later, Jackson had two pick-sixes against Wisconsin, though he accounted for all of the Hawkeyes’ scoring in a 38-14 loss.

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Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson. (AP)

“[It was] just getting back in the film room,” Jackson said when asked about his two noteworthy performances during the NFL Scouting Combine last month.

“I wanted to refocus, get back in the film room and prepare hard. Wisconsin was a really good team we played that week. I just tried to prepare the same way.”

NFL teams surely will like that about him. Jackson and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward are considered the two best cornerbacks in the draft this year.

Media outlets spotted Bears general manager Ryan Pace and members of his staff taking in Jackson’s starring performance against the Badgers on Nov. 11.

Pace also was listed in attendance for Ohio State’s 31-20 win against Michigan on Nov. 25.

Cornerback isn’t a pressing concern for the Bears after they re-signed Kyle Fuller (four years,
$56 million) and Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million).

But having the No. 8 pick, the Bears must be certain with their evaluations of Jackson and Ward. Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver also are considered potential first-round picks.

Where do the top cornerbacks fit and rank among the other top defenders in the draft? Who exactly are the Bears passing on in Ward and Jackson if they select Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick or Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds at No. 8?

“I definitely feel I’m the best player on the field,” Ward said at the combine. “I take pride in being on an island and competing with that [No. 1] receiver.”

What Ward doesn’t have in size (5-10, 191 pounds) he makes up for in speed (4.32 time in 40-yard dash). He is expected to be the fifth Ohio State cornerback selected in the first round since 2015: Marshon Lattimore (No. 11, Saints, 2017), Gareon Conley (No. 24, Raiders, 2017), Eli Apple (No. 10, Giants, 2016) and Bradley Roby (No. 31, Broncos, 2015).

“I just want to be that next guy to come out of Ohio State, to leave early and be that next first-round draft pick and produce in the league,” said Ward, whom many analysts and draft pundits rate better than Jackson.

Jackson’s ball skills stand out. He had eight interceptions and 18 pass breakups last season, while Ward had two and 15. But Jackson (6-1, 192 pounds) ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds at the -combine.

“He’s a long press corner, but he’s at his best when he’s got his eyes on the quarterback,” NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said at the combine. “I love his ball skills and his instincts.”

Do the Bears feel the same?

CORNERBACK

Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears brought back their top three cornerbacks from last season on new deals. The decision to retain Kyle Fuller arguably was their most important this offseason. It kept one of their first-round picks away from the Packers, who tried to poach him with an offer sheet.

On the roster: Fuller ($14 million average annual value), Prince Amukamara ($9 million), Marcus Cooper ($1.5 million), Sherrick McManis ($1.75 million), Bryce Callahan ($1.907 million), Cre’Von LeBlanc ($543,333), Doran Grant ($555,000).

Top five draft prospects

1. Denzel Ward, Ohio State: His size isn’t ideal at 5-10 and 191 pounds, but he’s the next great Buckeyes defensive back. He had two interceptions last season, his only one as a full-time starter.

2. Josh Jackson, Iowa: Jackson might have the best ball skills, but some teams prefer faster cornerbacks.

3. Jaire Alexander, Louisville: Alexander doesn’t get as much attention as Ward or Jackson, but he should be a first-round pick.

4. Isaiah Oliver, Colorado: One of the best athletes in the draft, Oliver was a record-setter in the decathlon at Colorado.

5. Mike Hughes, Central Florida: Teams have scrutinized his background. He left North Carolina after one season in 2015. It followed an incident at a fraternity house that resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge.

I’m intrigued by: The Bears’ decision to re-sign Amukamara to a three-year deal. It doesn’t feature an affordable opening for the Bears to get out of until after the 2019 season. What does that mean for the draft?